URSABLOG: Why The Long Face?

Happy New Year. Never before have I meant the greeting so genuinely, but never before has the bitterness of cynicism, combined with a sense of foreboding and powerlessness accompanied it. I really want everyone I greet to have a happy new year but such is the way the world is going that I wonder what I can do to ensure at least a better one than I expect. 

Don’t mind me, it’s probably just my mood. I called a friend just prior to New Year to arrange festivities, and I commented that I would just be glad to see the back of the last one. 

“Don’t say that!” he said, “You had a great year. More ship sales, better ship sales, progress, achievements, come on…”

“You’re probably right” I said. And I reflected on the many blessings, the many experiences of joy, happiness and peace, the new people in my life – especially my new godson – and how, in the end, I came out of the year in credit. I then went for a long walk with another friend – with a bottle of wine in between – where we shared experiences, and I pointed out to her the same thing that my friend pointed out to me. And she had really moved on, extricating herself from bitterness and toxicity in a way that she should be rightly proud of. 

At a wonderful dinner to celebrate the passing of the year, I asked the assembled guests what their new year resolutions were. They were the usual mixture of mundane and surprising, and it gave me hope that people were honest and honourable in their intentions. Mine are stuck on repeat (c.f. past blogs around this time): Drink less, exercise more, improve my Greek. At least two out of three were in play before the end of the year: I bought a new bike (and signed up for a suicidal biking event around Posidonia time), and restarted my Greek lessons. There is room for improvement in both to say the least, but at least I am trying to improve. As for drinking less, it is never a good idea to try to do this around the festive season, but I am trying to create a lifestyle – again – that lessens alcohol consumption and improves my mind. Being a competitive shipbroker of course makes this an uphill battle to start with. 

I need strength and support to do this, but thankfully I am blessed with strong and supportive friends who keep me going, and ensure that the battle with my demons is not a lonely one. (By the way I am sure that we all have demons, and those that say they do not are either so madly in love they are suppressed for now, or they are lying, to me and to themselves. I do not entirely trust the advice and guidance of either of these groups of people.) 

So with all these blessings, why do I feel cynical, afraid and powerless? And why do I suspect that I am not alone? 

The most obvious answer is personal which even I will not share in my blog. The second most obvious answer is the state of the world. Never in my memory – at least since I was a teenager in the early 1980s – have I felt the world so out of control. And the advantage of being a teenager then – apart from the brilliant music – was the advantage of all teenagers everywhere: the arrogance and freshness of youth, the sense that everything is so important because they are experiencing it, and the joy of knowing that time is unlimited. The early 80s was when the world was seriously on the edge of nuclear annihilation, and – at least where I was growing up – unemployment and poverty was rife amongst the families of the children I grew up with. 

These days, I do not have the advantage of the hormones and testosterone of my teenage years – well at least not in the same quantities – and I know that time is not unlimited. In fact time is running out quick. Age is not just a number, age is also an acknowledgment of an expiry date that none of us can avoid. I still – I think – have a young mind, and these complaints are not against the younger generations (although I hear many), and my body is not in that bad a shape considering the damage I have wrought on it. My fears are not for myself: there is still fuel left in the tank, I do not want to retreat into a grumpy and isolated middle age at odds with the world around me. I’m not done yet, not by a long way. 

My fear is that the world is heading into a period of war, uncontrollably and inexorably. There is of course war already, caused alarmingly enough by what can be described as unfinished business. Russia invaded Ukraine, and is still there, because Mr Putin could no longer accept the eventual results of a peace settlement thirty years before. Hamas’ deadly incursion into Israel – knowing full well the scale of the retaliation beforehand – has at root the creation of a new nation state after the second world war, and the forced – and continued – displacement of people at the time and ever since then. Houthi attacks on shipping is backed by Iranian power which has grievances of its own long held against many adversaries, both regional and global. And caught up amongst all this are people – all of the same flesh and blood – dying, injured, displaced and lost.

This is loosening up a global order that was mostly – despite various more local conflicts – understood and even taken for granted since 1990. The West is not dying, but is conflicted and confused by its own sense of loss and bewilderment as paradoxically it has become more connected and more isolated from the rest of the world. China is growing, becoming more assertive. There is no ‘solution’ to Taiwan, but there are claims and counterclaims, stress and tension. The UN is becoming more fragmented and irrelevant. 

According to the historian Philip Bobbit, author of the masterly The Shield of Achilles, countries, or rather states can only exist in a community of legitimate states where the checks and balances between them are governed by recognised rights (the right to exist as a state I mean) and a rule of law. Once this legitimacy breaks down (see above) in the eyes of one or the other state conflict begins as the rights to legitimacy are brought into question. As General Clause von Clausewitz said:

War is a mere continuation of policy by other means. We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.

This political instrument is now being wielded with greater freedom as the balance of powers changes, and the threat of complete – as opposed to partial – extinction of the human race recedes. It was only when Russia mentioned it had access to, and would begin mobilising, battlefield nuclear weapons that China was provoked into saying that not only was this not such a good idea, but they would not tolerate it. 

This state of affairs is not so terrible for shipowners, at least in monetary terms, as long as their ships and their crews stay away from the threat of attack. By extension, it is very good news for shipbrokers, lacking as they do the direct link between conflict and casualty. None of us however should take this as an excuse to act with impunity. Nevertheless tonne-mile supply is restricted, the fleet is fragmented, and the market state global economy (as Bobbitt would call it) can carry on being supplied by ships going the long way round, at higher rates. 

So why – as the barman said to the horse – the long face? 

Maybe it’s my mood. Imagine a world where ships – and their crews – are indiscriminately targeted because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Imagine – despite  the firepower of the world’s most powerful navies – that a missile or drone gets through, and a ship is damaged with loss of life. Then imagine airplanes shot down out of the sky because they are in the right airspace flying over the wrong people. Imagine a world where personal grievances are exaggerated into public and political ones by social media, and encourage more violence and conflict as fast as any political solution can be found. You don’t need to imagine it by the way, it has already been in existence for some time. 

What can I do about all this? Not much. I cannot see into the future and even if I could I would not have the power to do much about it. I can only count my blessings, continue to love those that I love and act accordingly, try and encourage those that deserve it (and even those that don’t), be a good colleague and broker and work on myself where it needs it most. These are perhaps more reasonable and better aspirations than drinking less and exercising more. Improving my Greek however remains a no brainer. 

Making some sense of life in these times is purely personal, as I am the one that is living in these times. The New Year comes and by a few days, a few weeks at most, almost all of our good resolutions have fallen by the wayside. Perhaps having the good sense to change what I can change, accept what I can’t and having the wisdom to know the difference is enough, but this is harder than it looks. Nonetheless I shall try. But I will also try and wash the taste of bitter cynicism out of my mouth, not worry too much about the future, and be more in control of my own life before I bemoan the powerlessness of others. Because, after all, I have more important and better things to be getting on with. 

Simon Ward